Play it Again: In Defense of (Well-Made) Remakes

Somewhere at this very moment, scores of people are probably pitching remakes.

Whether it’s over tennis in California, lattes in New York or laptops in remote villages, old, new and wannabe industry members are making the case for reboots. A handful of these will become a reality, and that handful seems to be getting more generous by the year.

In addition to this month’s Cinderella, 2015 will see revivals of Jurassic Park, Poltergeist, Peanuts, Mad Max, Point Break and Frankenstein. On television, the Odd Couple will be joined by updates of Bewitched, Coach, Heroes, The X-Files and Married with Children.

Usually our collective instinct is to hate the very idea of redoing a story, especially a beloved one. Not without reason, of course, since we’ve all seen this go horribly awry. But we’ve also seen excellent remakes although many of us won’t admit it. Or don’t realize it.

Let’s look at a few of the most common objections to remakes.

It didn’t need to be remade. This is an absurd argument because how many movies or TV shows truly “need” to be made at all, regardless of quality? Maybe Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, but need usually isn’t a prerequisite for making or remaking anything.

The original was wonderful. Does that mean a revamp can’t be just as good or better? Not at all. Case in point: Little Women, which was impeccably filmed in the 1930s and again–in a rendition more faithful to the book–in the 1990s.

The original was terrible. Maybe it made a mess of a favorite story or simply had inherent problems, but a do-over could end up doing it justice. Case in point: These Three, a fine 1936 film but a poor adaptation, omitting the play’s lesbian plotline and violent outcome. In 1961, when movie censors had become more permissive, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour was beautifully and faithfully redone.

It’s better as a movie. That depends on how it’s interpreted for TV. Case in point: M*A*S*H, a commercial and critical smash of a film, was far more explicit than censor-hamstrung 1971 would permit a TV series to be. But what it lost in raunchy content and language, it made up for in irreverence, literacy and characters so engaging that a whopping 77 percent of all TV viewers watched their 1983 swansong.

It’s better as a TV show. Conversely, a film can take a series in other directions and give it new depth. Case in point: The Fugitive, an iconic 1960s series re-imagined in a 1993 film with the same premise and lead characters but different villain, motive and resolution. It was riveting enough to become a megahit and get four Oscar nominations, including one for best picture.

The star of the original was too perfect. So he or she owns the role for all eternity? Hardly. Case in point: The Odd Couple, featuring the comedic dream team of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on film and transferred to the small screen with the equally superb Tony Randall-Jack Klugman combo. Or Basil Rathbone, the definitive Sherlock Holmes since the 1940s film series—but not so much once Benedict Cumberbatch brought Sherlock to TV in 2010.

Getting back to the classics so adored that reboot talk is often treated as heresy, many of those are actually remakes. Consider the following examples.

The Wizard of Oz – This 1939 megahit was the fifth remake of the Frank Baum fairy tale, among them a 1925 version featuring Oliver Hardy as the Woodsman.

A Christmas Carol – Best known as “the one with Alistair Sim,” this 1951 film was preceded by a dozen others dating back to the infancy of movies, including the popular 1938 MGM entry starring Reginald Owen.

Hamlet – Laurence Olivier’s is widely considered the best, but it was the twelfth to be filmed. Many more were to follow, notably the highly acclaimed ones with Richard Burton, Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh.

Marty – Awarded four Oscars, including the top prize, this bittersweet 1955 love story had been an hour-long Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse episode. It aired in 1953 starring Rod Steiger, who was so moving that he was offered the film role Ernest Borgnine ultimately won.

Pride and Prejudice – Whether the 1995 BBC series or the 2005 film is your favorite, ten others came earlier including David O. Selznick’s star-studded 1940 costume drama.

The Maltese Falcon – This 1941 noir classic was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s thriller, preceded in 1936 by Satan Met a Lady with superstar Bette Davis. The 1931 original was so eclipsed by the Humphrey Bogart film that it came to TV in the 1950s with its title changed to Dangerous Female.

Before we move on to the many pitfalls of remakes, here’s your chance to weigh in. What do you consider the best and/or worst remakes ever?

For extra credit, is there a film or TV show you’d like to see remade? Let’s hear your pitch.


About famewalker

Loretta Wish is a novelist, essayist, playwright, musician and writer of print and online columns and feature stories. A former newspaper reporter and government communications writer, she is now a freelance writer/editor and plays guitar in a classic rock band. A devotee of old movies and TV, she hopes that in the next life Eve Arden will star in her biopic. Unless Thelma Ritter is already attached to the project.
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